Relationship Experts Share How Couples Should Split the Holidays Between Families

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Ah, the holidays. If the stress of the necessary shopping, planning, eating, and partying (not to mention all the thematic music) isn’t enough to get to you, there’s always the joy of dealing with your family. But while you’re probably accustomed to dealing with your aunt’s prodding questions or your grandfather’s eyebrow-raising diatribes, the one thing that never gets easier is negotiating where you and your partner will spend the holidays, especially if you’re of the same religion and hail from families who are equally demanding of your time. If you’ve ever dealt with a guilt-tripping relative who refuses to take “maybe next year” for an answer, you know what I mean.

If one or both of you have small families, leaving them with an empty seat at the table can feel nothing short of heartbreaking. And if one or both of you have parents who are divorced, it only multiplies the obligations and therefore the chaos. Seriously, how do people negotiate this stuff without wanting to crawl under a rock and hide until the New Year?

Some couples, miraculously, find they are able to do it all, spending portions of major holidays with both families. “We’ve always had Thanksgiving lunch, her family dinner,” says Andy Martin, the 29-year-old founder of Moonlight Games LLC.  “So we do both. For Christmas, we spend eve and morning at her parents’, then that night and following morning at mine. We’re supposed to swap, but so far never have because my grandpa is always with my family the night of Christmas.”

But unfortunately, solutions like this only work for couples with families who live near each other. For people with family homes more than a couple hours away, things get more complicated. Dr. Gary Brown, PhD, a Los Angeles-based relationship counselor, says couples should strive to figure out a third option, beyond just “their family gets Christmas, mine takes Thanksgiving” that both they and their families can feel good about.

“The obvious choices are to celebrate with one or the other partner’s family.  But that’s just two choices that could leave at least one family not feeling very good about it,” he says. “It’s relatively easy to consider two options.  Now think of at least a third option.  Finding that third option tends to challenge the brain to be more creative, and when we are thinking creatively, this usually leads to even more options.  The more options we have, the more likely it is that we’ll find a solution that has the best chance of working for both partners.”

Among the third options Brown suggests are alternating years, so for example, one family gets Christmas this year, while the other can count on seeing the couple for it next year. Paired with the strategy of doing Thanksgiving in one place and Christmas or Hanukkah in the other, this can make all parties involved feel good (or at least kind of okay) with the arrangement, especially if one family likes a certain holiday more than the other. There’s also the strategy of forming family traditions around less “competitive” holidays, like Easter, Passover, the Fourth of July, or even New Year’s Eve. While this may not make your mom feel 100 percent better about not seeing you and your spouse on Christmas, it will give you and your family a unique tradition to look forward to every year that everyone knows they can count on celebrating together.

Some couples eschew the conflict entirely by splitting up to attend holidays at their respective homes by themselves. “We have to fly across the country to see my family whereas his are here, so usually I just go by myself and/or he comes for a few days,” says Johanna Fischer, a 29-year-old teacher. While some people don’t like the idea of celebrating major holidays without their significant other, consider the fact that this option may actually make it easier to spend quality time with family and friends from home. 

Ultimately, Dr. Brown says, the most important thing to consider is what’s in the best interest of your marriage or relationship, and that may change from year to year: “Understand that flexibility is really a key point here. Look for options that, hopefully, will work for you in both the short term and the long term.”

But once you and your partner have made your decision about how to divvy things up, what about breaking the news to your family without hurting their feelings or causing a fight? Suzannah Galland, a life advisor and relationship expert, recommends prepping exactly how you want to the conversation to go before it takes place, taking into consideration what your family’s questions and concerns might be and how you can quell them.

“Imagine your ideal outcome, and think the opposite,” Galland says. “Write out the hardest questions you or your family may ask, even if they’re never said. For example, your mom may ask you, ‘If you’re not coming home for the holidays, do you even care about this family?'”

“By coming up with answers to these worst-case-scenarios, you’re building confidence– and learning where you shouldn’t tread,” Galland explains. She also suggests role-playing the conversation with your significant other and giving honest feedback to each other about where your responses may be falling short. It’s important to go into the conversation with your family with a cool head and to allow them to vent if need be.

But, Galland says, “Holidays are not about pleasing everyone, they’re about our intentions. And with patience, compassion, and sensitivity, we can make our loved ones feel cherished throughout the holidays.”

Ultimately, there’s no perfect solution, and things only get more complicated when children are added to the equation and parents begin to age. Perhaps that’s why many of the people we surveyed simply answered “interfaith marriage” when asked to describe their strategy for managing the holiday season as a couple. Singles, heed these words—and be thankful you get to enjoy your turkey and stuffing without a side of drama.

Cait Munro
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